Doing Feminist Science/Feminists Doing Science: An interview with Dr. Sari van Anders, Founder of Gap Junction Science Part I

*Editor’s note. The title of this post is the title of Sari van Anders’ talk sponsored by Emory Women in Neuroscience on March 20th. This post is the first of a two-part series.

Mallory Bowers, a 5th year graduate student at Emory University and President of Emory Women in Neuroscience, interviewed Dr. Sari van Anders an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, for the Neuroethics Women Leaders group. Dr. van Anders received her Ph.D. in Biological and Cognitive Psychology from Simon Fraser University. Her current research program focuses on “social neuroendocrinology, intimacy (sexuality/pair bonding, nurturance), evolution, health, gender/sex and sexual diversity, and research and feminist science practice.” The interview will be published in a two part presentation. In Part I, she discusses her path to becoming a critical feminist scientist, the pitfalls of research on sex/gender differences, and how her work fits into bioethics.

Can you talk a little bit about your evolution as a feminist scientist – who or what influenced your feminism?

A very brief selected slice: I was reading feminist science studies in undergrad, but there were no courses on it. I was also so feminist-identified that I didn’t understand the value of taking feminist courses (I thought they were to teach feminism in general, and didn’t understand what feminist scholarship was). I knew I was interested in evolution, sex, gender, and socialization, but it seemed to me that you either studied one (sex/evolution) or the other (gender/socialization). This was actually a pretty fair assumption as there were almost no places to get mentoring about how to incorporate the two into one research program. In graduate school I was doing more work on biological determinism of sex, and then moved to social modulation of hormones. It was really hard for me to see how I could bring the reading I was doing on feminist science studies into my actual science practice, and most of the scientists who were interested in feminist scholarship had left science practice, so there were no guidelines about the day-to-day of feminist science (i.e., there was lots on epistemological approaches but almost nothing on epistemic approaches to feminist science). I kept reading and thinking, noticing little things I could do and claiming them for feminist science. In graduate school, I started an interdisciplinary group at my PhD institution to bring together people interested in gender and sex. And, I started teaching courses that brought the topics together (intersexualities; biopsychological approaches to gender/sex). Slowly it came together, with many missteps and much influence from seeing important ideas in feminist science studies, realizing how I could play them out in my work, and so on. I was already doing feminist science when I took my joint position in Psychology and Women’s Studies here at the University of Michigan, but being more immersed in feminist scholarship has been a major boon to my feminist science practice.

Karen Rommelfanger and I have discussed a bit about breaking molds as it pertains to creating roles and/or careers that don’t necessarily exist. How were you able to break the mold in terms of creating your research program? What advice do you have for individuals looking to “break the mold”?

I think one key is boldness, which I also think is an important contributor to success in science in general. I think an openness to being wrong, to looking dumb, to sharing new ideas, and for learning new languages and perspectives (not just new facts) is also critical. I think being very productive is useful, because publications are the major currency of science, so that will help people overlook your ‘eccentricities’ to some extent (and being feminist and doing feminist science isn’t not seen that way). Having minor authority issues never hurts either, when it comes to breaking molds. Finally, I remember a sort of endless search for mentors and models of how to do feminist science, and I know students are still doing this same thing. There are so few, though, that a lot of it has to be experiential and learning. When you’re breaking the mold, you may want to find another mold that fits you, but that’s the whole point of mold-breaking! There is no premade mold. You have to create your space. I think I started moving forward a lot more quickly once I realized there was no one to ask permission from, no one who was going to tell me I was on the right or wrong track, and that, yes, I would sometimes make mistakes (and hopefully learn from them). So, independence is really useful. But so is collegiality, and an interest in sharing ideas and concepts and learning from others.

van Anders 2013

Your work combines methodologies from biology and the humanities, although your background is in psychology. Was it difficult becoming proficient in reading and writing from a humanities perspective? What advice do you have for someone with wet lab training that would like to become more proficient in humanities work?

It was difficult. It took a lot of time, a lot of talking, a lot of reading, and a lot of trying. Some of my initial attempts never came to fruition because I just wasn’t ready – the ideas were ready, but I wasn’t ready to articulate them yet. My colleagues at the University of Michigan in feminist scholarship have been crucial, as have others at conferences and over email. It’s kind of like learning languages – the more immersion, the better it goes (I assume). If I let my lack of language and imposter syndrome get in the way of interacting with people, I would never have been able to eventually become fluent. So, my advice would be to read, read, read, read and talk, talk, talk, without being worried about saying the wrong things. Hold onto observations and insights until you’re ready to articulate them. And interact with humanists! Unfortunately, our training as scientists generally implicitly or explicitly teaches us that science is the only valuable epistemology in town. It’s certainly the dominant one right now, but there is so much to gain from other disciplines.

What is the biggest misconception about your research?

One misconception about my research is that the biology is biologically deterministic; I work hard to separate the two and help people understand that, though the two often overlap, they don’t need to. Another misconception is that it’s about women only. That’s an interesting one because any research with women becomes known as being only about women, even when it involves men and gender-diverse people too. So I work hard to help people understand that the presence of women among my participants doesn’t somehow erase the presence of men in my studies. Another misconception is that human research is only relevant to humans – to address this, I work hard to explain how I am studying human particularities alongside comparative insights. I see humans as both specific and as another species. In other words, I have my cake (humans are unique) and eat it too (humans are animals).

What is the most common mistake researchers make in interpreting sex differences?

The most common mistake is calling these differences ‘sex’ differences in the first place! Most human behavioral science literally has nothing to say about causal routes and whether a difference reflects innate evolved factors (like sex) or social forces (like gender). Somehow, the presence of biological measures seems to muddy this, as if the mere measurement of biology somehow precludes socialization. But biological measures and biological causation have very little to say to each other. For example, if women show one behavior-hormone association and men show another, is that because these hormone-behavior associations evolved differently? Or do they reflect very different socialization histories? It could be both or either, but a biological measure does not at all point to causation even as it’s interpreted that way. This is why I use ‘gender/sex’ to help highlight that anything we study in humans is a result of a trajectory that includes biological and social influences.

Courtesy of The New York Times

How can we overcome mistakes when it comes to interpreting sex differences – should scientists be required to take a gender studies course?

Well, what’s interesting is that this mistake – mistaking biological difference for biological causation is, arguably, a scientific mistake. Scientists should be able to recognize that correlation does not imply causation without a gender studies course. But of course feminist science studies elegantly (and depressingly) demonstrate, time and time again, that when it comes to gender, sex, and biological determinism, there seems to a ‘scientific override’ button that gets pushed. I think a critical component of addressing these issues is having more feminist construction of science alongside the important pillars of feminist critiques and deconstructions of science. We need more feminists up in there (there = science). To my mind, scientists are most easily swayed by science and biolegible arguments, so changing science is something that feminist scientists can contribute to.

How do you see your research as it relates to the field of neuroethics?

I do a lot of work on testosterone and sexual desire in social context, and this is relevant to ongoing medicalization of low sexual desire and using testosterone to treat it. My work has a lot to say about this in a way that is relevant to neuroethics, because biomedical research tends to be focused on heterosexual women’s intercourse rates with male partners. No one is prescribing testosterone to increase masturbation, increase desire for hook-ups, heighten gay men’s desire, etc. So the discussion of ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ is very rooted in a view of increasing married women’s desire for penile penetration. You don’t have be a critical feminist to see those problematics at all and as ripe for neuroethics investigations.

I also think that my work calls into question the assumptions of what makes for scientific methods, measures, or questions. For example, I have demonstrated that attending to social construction – typically the sine qua non of an oxymoron if paired with science! – is critical to scientific research with hormones and social behavior. I have argued that our cultural discomfort with vaginal fluid has precluded its use in science, which has limited our ability to address important theoretical and applied questions relevant to sexual health and HIV/AIDS (van Anders 2013). And, I have used qualitative work as a model of understanding phenomena relevant to bioscience. Finally, I’ve written about thinking social for bioscientific work on bisexuality (van Anders 2012). The narrowing of our methods, measures, and questions means that neuroscience has a correspondingly limited ability to answer and ask rich questions. I think that has implications for neuroethics: how do our science-culture blinders, discomforts, and pre-theoretical assumptions lead to research that may skirt the limits of ethical practice precisely because bioscientists are taught to ignore social factors?

van Anders SM. Nomenclature and knowledge-culture, or, we don’t call semen ‘penile mucous’. Psychology & Sexuality (2013)

van Anders SM. From one bioscientist to another: guidelines for researching and writing about bisexuality for the lab and biosciences. Journal of Bisexuality (2012), pp. 393-403.

Mallory Bowers is a 5th year Neuroscience doctoral candidate working with Dr. Kerry Ressler at Emory University. Mallory is using a mouse model of exposure-based psychotherapy to better understand the neurobiology of learned fear. Specifically, her research focuses on a putative interaction between the cholecystokinin and endogenous cannabinoid systems that may underlie the extinction of cued fear. Outside of the laboratory, Mallory is very interested in issues at the intersection of gender and neuroscience. Mallory is the current president of Emory Women in Neuroscience (E-WIN).

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Bowers, M. (2014). Doing Feminist Science/Feminists Doing Science: An interview with Dr. Sari van Anders, Founder of Gap Junction Science Part I. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

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